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Spreading the wealth

Toronto, July 27, 2016

By Geoff Koehler

Dr. Andrew Pinto and a patient use a new online tool to help address income security
Dr. Andrew Pinto, a family doctor with St. Michael’s Academic Family Health Team and a patient use a new online tool to help address income security. The tool was developed in a partnership with St. Michael’s and Prosper Canada. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Andrew Pinto)

When the Sisters of St. Joseph’s founded St. Michael’s Hospital, it was to care for the sick and the poor — which shows that even in 1892, income and health went hand-in-hand.

In that tradition, the Urban Angel continues working to address the physical, mental and social needs of the disadvantaged patients St. Michael’s was founded to serve.

“The social determinants of health are the areas and aspects of our lives that clearly impact our health,” said Gordon Soplet, an income security health promoter with St. Michael’s Academic Family Health Team. “Food security, employment and housing are all examples — and are some of the areas we aim to address in the clinic.”

The Family Health Team is focused on improving income security for patients living in poverty. The team has two income security health promoters — Karen Tomlinson and Soplet. Patients work with these promoters to navigate social services and improve their financial literacy.

Tomlinson and Soplet also help patients reduce expenses, complete their taxes, set up bank accounts, access free programs, budget and save for emergencies.

“Most primary care clinics aren’t as fortunate to have someone like Karen or Gordon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help,” said Dr. Andrew Pinto, a member of the Family Health Team’s Social Determinants of Health Committee. “We want to address the root causes of poorer health for the disadvantaged everywhere, not only at our six Family Health Team sites.”

   
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In the project’s first phase, this online income assessment tool will be piloted in three primary care clinics in each of Toronto and Winnipeg. After clinicians have examined the tool’s feasibility in a health-care setting, the intervention will be tested in other locations and refined, to ensure it can be used across a variety of settings.

The Family Health Team partnered with Prosper Canada to build an online tool that screens individuals for low income and helps patients access benefits they may not be receiving. Dr. Pinto said he hoped the tool would be particularly useful for people with mental illness, newcomers to Canada and those with language or education barriers.

Health-care provider and patient will go through the tool together because completing the questionnaire may involve discussing a patient’s clinical history. Some of the benefits this tool may identify, such as Ontario Disability Support Program, may require the action of the physician or another health-care provider.

“As a physician, I should know if my patient is struggling to put food on the table at the end of the month or is unable to afford the medication I’m prescribing,” said Dr. Pinto. “At St. Michael’s we aim to put this lived experience at the centre of our social determinants of health work. This online tool could help address similar income issues for patients at clinics across Canada.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.